What Should I Do About Acid Reflux During Chemotherapy?

How cancer treatment can trigger reflux and what you can do about it

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Acid reflux is a digestive disease in which stomach acid or bile irritates the food pipe lining. One common cause of acid reflux is a stomach abnormality called a hiatal hernia. Normally, the diaphragm helps keep acid in our stomach, but if you have a hiatal hernia, acid can move up into your esophagus and cause symptoms of acid reflux disease.

Does Anything Else Cause Acid Reflux?

Other common causes of acid reflux include:

  • Eating large meals
  • Lying down right after a meal, or bending over at the waist
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Snacking close to bedtime
  • Eating certain foods, such as citrus, tomato, chocolate, mint, garlic, onions, or spicy or fatty foods
  • Drinking certain beverages, such as alcohol, carbonated drinks, coffee, or tea
  • Smoking
  • Being pregnant
  • Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, certain muscle relaxers, or blood pressure medications

Does Chemotherapy Increase the Probability That I Will Experience Acid Reflux?

Acid reflux, often called heartburn, can be common both while undergoing chemotherapy and after treatment has ended. Why?

Cancer cells divide at a high mitotic rate, meaning they divide much more quickly than most of the cells in our body. Chemotherapy drugs work by targeting these rapidly dividing cells. Some cells in our bodies do rapidly divide, like the cells in the lining of our stomach and digestive tract, which protect our digestive organs from acidic stomach acid. Chemotherapy drugs simply cannot tell the difference between these normal, rapidly dividing cells and cancer cells, so the drug attacks these cells as well.

How Can I Relieve My Acid Reflux?

Over-the-counter (OTC) acid reflux medication may be all you need to relieve your acid reflux, but be sure to ask your doctor before beginning any medication. If OTC remedies aren't effective, your doctor can likely prescribe a medication to control your acid reflux.

When experiencing reflux, try to keep a heartburn record to determine if a certain food or activity triggers it. Some people find fried foods or carbonated beverages to cause or worsen it. Keeping track of when it occurs can help you to eliminate foods or other things that exacerbate your symptoms.

What Else Should I Know? 

Lifestyle Changes That Can Prevent Heartburn: Various lifestyle changes you can make to prevent acid reflux or, barring that, ease symptoms.

Treating Cancer with Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy works by targeting and eliminating rapidly-dividing cancer cells in the body. Rather than there being one universal chemotherapy drug, there are several different types that are most effective against specific forms of cancer.

Safe Foods for Heartburn Sufferers: Certain foods can aggravate your heartburn symptoms and, when planning your acid reflux diet, it's best to limit or completely avoid those foods and drinks. Conversely, there are some foods that have little or no potential for causing heartburn.

Symptoms of Heartburn: If you know the symptoms of heartburn, it can lead to earlier treatment. Symptoms include burning sensations in the chest and/or throat, a sour or bitter taste in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, and asthma-like symptoms.

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